With six games now remaining on the 2013 schedule, the Rangers (21-17-4, 46 pts) kick off their final set of back-to-back games this evening when they host the Florida Panthers (13-23-6, 32 pts) at The Garden before skating up in Buffalo against the Sabres on Friday night. This is the Rangers sixth and final set of back-to-back games this season, and they are 5-4-1 in those games, so far, including a 3-1-1 mark in the first game.
The Rangers enter play tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with a game in hand on the Winnipeg Jets. Though 5-2-1 in their last eight games, the Rangers are coming off a 4-2 loss in Philadelphia on Tuesday---one in which the Rangers fell into a 2-0 first-period hole they could not escape despite a 40-shot barrage against Flyers goalie Steve Mason. Not surprisingly much of the talk in the Rangers dressing room after practice on Wednesday centered on getting off to a better start tonight and in the remaining games, though head coach John Tortorella continued to say his team had the better of the chances early in the game Tuesday, they just did not convert nor play with enough energy.
So a better start, a higher energy level, and better finish around the net are on the Rangers to-do list this evening. And they likely will have to do all of the above without veteran forward Brian Boyle, who suffered an undisclosed injury in the first period on Tuesday, did not practice Wednesday, and is likely out tonight. Rookie Chris Kreider was recalled from the Connecticut Whale, and it will be interesting to see if Tortorella will use him in Boyle's spot on the third line or place him on the fourth line and move either Taylor Pyatt, Arron Asham, or Darroll Powe into a third-line role.
Tortorella also said Wednesday that he may try and shake up his two power play units again on Wednesday after Tuesday's critical 0-for-5 showing. Boyle would need to be replaced on one unit if he can not play, and the coach hinted that young John Moore may get a look at the point after a very strong showing against the Flyers.
No matter the line configurations or make up of their power play personnel, the Rangers flat out need to skate away with two points this evening. They can not afford to slip up against the team which owns the fewest wins (13) and points (32) in the entire National Hockey League as they did on March 21st at The Garden, dropping an unacceptable 3-1 decision to the Panthers. Several Rangers pointed out that losses such as that one are one of the main reasons why the Rangers are in the spot they are right now, fighting for their playoff lives.
The key to that Florida win over the Rangers in late March was the 44-save effort from young goaltender Jakob Markstrom, who similar to Mason Tuesday in Philly, came off the bench to make a start and was spectacular in victory. Florida actually won four of their next eight games after that win over the Rangers, but has now dropped three straight, coming off Tuesday's 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Islanders.
One look at the scoring differential shows exactly why the Panthers have struggled so mightily this season. They own a league-worst -46 goal differential, scoring only 101 goals (2nd fewest in the NHL) while surrendering 147 (tied for most allowed in the league). Not a single Panther has a positive plus/minus rating, and veteran goalies Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore both have goals against averages north of 3.29 and save percentages south of .893. The Panthers have given up 15 goals during their current-three game losing streak.
Henrik Lundqvist likely will make his ninth consecutive start in goal tonight for the Rangers, while the Panthers also have yet to make their starting goalie known.
Will the Rangers do what they need to do tonight, and grab two crucial points with a win? Share your predictions below.